Theatre for the Brexit Blues

The culture: Boudica, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
The cheap seats: as always, £5 standing Yard tickets (it really is the only way to experience a Globe show)

24th June 2016. It was the day after the EU referendum and I was watching Richard III at the Almeida. I cried a lot – because Ralph Fiennes was amazing, because the women were portrayed so brilliantly, and because of one heartbreaking moment in particular: when Richmond says “England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself” in Act 5 Scene 5.

I was still in shock at that point. I’d tweeted on the day of the vote, using the trending hashtag #iVoted, some S Club 7 lyrics: “We’ve got to all stick together”. I was feeling pretty pleased with the jubilant pun I had lined up for the next day, results day: “Never ever forget that I’ve got EU and EU’ve got me”. Alas, it was never to be tweeted. We voted to leave and my shock gradually turned from confusion, to anger, to confusion again and, finally, to ambivalence.

Richard III spoke to me that night because it really seemed to me that a small majority of my compatriots were scarring our country, prioritising Little England over the greater good. No piece of theatre has touched my Brexit nerve so much since until I saw Tristan Bernays’ new play, Boudica, at the Globe last weekend.

As a native of the land the play called Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), the story of Boudica (or Boadicea as she was known when I first studied the warrior queen at school) is, for me, a familiar one. So what interested me wasn’t the brave and fiery queen (Gina McKee) uniting with neighbouring leaders to defeat the brutal and controlling European Roman powers-that-be and regain control of her land (although the fight scenes were impressively fierce). No. It was Boudica’s second daughter Alonna (Joan Iyiola) who really spoke to me as I stood blood-spattered in the Yard. The dialogue was often clunky and archaic but Alonna’s line “this isle will crack” cut through the noise of the camp Roman political talk and the harsh British battle-cries – a simple statement that expressed such heartbreak.

Alonna and her elder sister Blodwynn (Natalie Simpson) spent years in the forest, training under the guidance of their fearless mother and Andraste, an Icenian war goddess. When the sisters are raped by Roman soldiers they become even more passionate about their mother’s cause.  But while Blodwynn turns her thoughts to revenge and wants nothing more than the blood of her enemies, Alonna is more hesitant to plunge her weapon deep in the chests of the Romans, instead imploring the English tribes to think about what kind of Britain they are fighting for. Is freedom from Rome that is won by spilling blood on English soil, killing children and raping their mothers, really freedom at all?

Bernays’ Brexit-Boudica was a timely reminder that while we negotiate our messy severance from the European Union it’s vital that we soothe the emerging cracks in our isle before they turn to deep, irreversible scars. An imperfect but empowering night at the Globe (and my last trip of the year).

 

(Also seen this week – Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Bergman double bill After the Rehearsal / Persona, directed by Ivo van Hove at the Barbican (£10 Young Barbican ticket with a great central view). Honestly I couldn’t make enough sense of it to write a full post. van Hove trademarks that I used to love (the music, the bare sets) are beginning to get tired. The unnecessary nudity (always women) feels nasty. There were a few moments I liked, particularly in Persona, where Jan Versweyveld’s set opened out and broke down into this magnificent, water-covered scene, but, overall, I found it overlong and underwhelming)

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2016/17: my year in review

I doubt many will have noticed but I’ve been mostly AWOL online since September 2016. This time last year I’d just finished my MA – a time of spectacular highs and terrible lows which ended in several nasty anxiety attacks on dissertation deadline day. To cut a very long story short, I didn’t actually fail my degree and now, after something of an annus horribilis working in retail and feeling very isolated living outside London for the first time in four years, I’m back doing what I love having secured full funding for my PhD research.

Sitting in my first induction session of the term, pencilling exciting things into my 2017/18 diary, I found myself thinking about 2016/17. It was my first academic year outside of the education system since 1999 and something of a culture shock. It wasn’t the endless, soul-crushing job application process that got me down so much as no longer having a satisfying answer to the question “so, what do you do?”

But 2016 was famously the year of “just realising stuff” and one of my most important realisations was just how far I’ve changed paths since I set off for London to spend hours close-reading poetry and devouring literary history. If I had studied anywhere else I would probably have ended up specialising in fascinating, bookish topics like “the Victorian Gothic” or “women in early modern drama”. Spending four years in the capital, however, opened my eyes to the wonders of the stage and now here I am about to embark on a huge theatre research project exploring Shakespeare and Global Festival Cultures.

I started this blog as a way to record all the great shows I was seeing but have rather abandoned it recently, all too often finding it hard to dredge up the motivation to put fingers to keyboard. But now, in the name of getting in to better writing habits, I am planning to jot down something (anything, even if it’s just a few lines) about every show I see – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And so, to begin, here’s 2016/17: my year in review. Going through my diary I found a lot of things I’d forgotten. While October, November and December were mostly spent ceaselessly drafting and redrafting various applications, in January there was Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre, which left me (already quite broken by all that drafting) really broken. In February there was a terrible production of The Cherry Orchard at the Arcola, which we escaped at the interval in favour of strong G&T’s in the bar. In March I caught Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale at my local theatre, the Mercury, which was a timely reminder that I wasn’t actually living in cultural exile and my hometown does, in fact, have a lot to offer. Several more trips to London followed, all Shakespeare-themed, for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s spectacular, 6-hour Roman Tragedies at the Barbican, Dickie Beau’s brilliant mix-tape Hamlet Re-Member Me, and Rob Icke’s Hamlet at the Almeida (which I actually didn’t love as much as everyone else did).

April brought a change in season and fortunes (this was the month I discovered that I’d won my funding). But some things never change, and of course I saw more Shakespeare, including the National’s Twelfth Night which was as aesthetically pleasing as an Oliver Bonas catalogue but not nearly as groundbreaking as it tried to be, and Joe Hill Gibbins’ muddy and miserable Midsummer, which I was lucky enough to catch on its final night. I also saw an east-Asian reclamation of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (which I’m ashamed to say I fell asleep in, exhausted by a day of being shouted at by angry customers for things that really weren’t my fault) and a screening of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead live from the Old Vic – these screenings really are a lifeline for those of us out here in the sticks. April also brought two more pilgrimages to the Barbican, one for a second look at that excellent Winter’s Tale and the other for a bizarre van Hove flop, Obsession, which featured an underwhelming Jude Law, some gratuitous female nudity, and the loudest treadmill ever used onstage to simulate running on the spot…

In May, another unbearable show without an interval to escape in: Yaël Farber’s Salomé at the National. The most interesting thing about it was Salomé’s obvious, awful merkin. The Mercury Theatre provided a fun family night out with Spamalot! and I travelled to York for a few days of exploring during the city’s second International Shakespeare Festival. In June I spoke about various Hamlets at my first academic conference and, while in Stratford-upon-Avon, caught shows in all three of the RSC’s theatres: another befuddling Salomé, an exhaustingly outdated Antony & Cleopatra (which resulted in another interval escape mission to the pub), and some new writing at The Other Place – two really interesting productions, even if a show about oil spills looks a little hypocritical coming from a theatre heavily sponsored by BP. Back in Essex I caught a wonderful little homegrown, Made in Colchester production of David Grieg’s The Events before another two-show day in London – and two of my favourites of the year – the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet (whose aesthetic can be best summed up by Shea Coulée from season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race lip-syncing a sexy, sassy rap wearing an orange neon wig and brandishing a baseball bat) and Alice Birch’s really clever Anatomy of a Suicide, directed at the Royal Court by the inimitable Katie Mitchell.

July started with an epic Angels in America two-show day and a screening of the new Hamlet opera from Glyndebourne and finished with a production of As You Like It in a forest (which is, to be honest, exactly how I like it). August brought with it the end of the summer, another trip to Stratford for the RSC’s Titus, a lovely, simple Romeo and Juliet in one of Cambridge’s private college gardens as part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, and a guilty-pleasure trip to The Phantom of the Opera in the West End.

And so to September – a new academic year and a time for looking back as well as forward. Perhaps that’s why the National’s gorgeous production of Sondheim’s Follies, shot through with the bittersweetness of nostalgia and the bitterness of regret, really hit me in the heart (and the tearducts). Here’s to 2017/18, to more adventures, and, above all, to more theatre.

 

Catch-up

The culture: Many plays in many theatres over many weeks

The cheap seats: mostly cheap, sometimes splurges because theatre is cheaper than therapy

Oh ok so I’ve been bad at writing about what I’ve been to see recently. There are many reasons why but mostly because I’m trying  – sometimes a bit successfully – to write  my dissertation. A few little sentences about each one will have to do…

The Forbidden Zone, Barbican Theatre
I saw this when I was on a Katie Mitchell binge. Being a total fangirl I saw Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House not once but twice, then the mind-bogglingly excellent Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court in the same month. The Forbidden Zone was created by Mitchell for 14-18 NOW in partnership with the Schaubühne, Berlin, one of my favourite theatres to tell the forgotten stories of the wars’ women and the secret heartaches they kept in their lockets. It was a feat of artistry, making cinema-quality film live onstage, but all those cameras and screens made the stage feel cluttered and mediated between the audience and the action. Mitchell’s work works best when it’s full frontal and meets your glare with a knowing grin before punching you in the guts. Metaphorically, of course.

The Flick, National Theatre
Set in an old cinema between screenings, The Flick is slow-paced and full. of. pauses.It’s a play where nothing much happens – to the point where a man exploding a bag of popcorn becomes genuinely shocking – but it’s somehow heartbreakingly beautiful and I sobbed and fell in love with it so much that I went back to see it again before it closed. My experiences of Annie Baker’s play about millenial malaise, the futility of love and life and the unavoidable necessity of human connection, however awkward, is something I want to write about at some point. But the play made me realise a lot about myself and it’s stuff I’m still working out so I’m not ready to do much else except sum it up with the following emojis: 😍  💔.

A shit-tonne of Shakespeare
I’m doing an MA on Shakespeare. I live and breathe Shakespeare. Sometimes I think I’m getting a bit sick of Shakespeare. Recently I’ve seen so much Shakespeare I had to have a night in binge-watching Game of Thrones to balance things out, only for the finale to have a huge, brilliant Titus Andronicus reference. I can’t escape the man. It’s like he’s haunting me. I saw a horrid King John at the Rose Theatre, Kingston in which the actor playing John had learnt everyone’s lines and kept mouthing them – impressive but distracting. The only things I liked about this seriously dated production were Howard Charles as the Bastard and sitting on the floor on cushions like a child. In the past month I’ve seen the Globe’s Macbeth (directed by Iqbal Khan, one of my faves) but it was disappointing, and then had a week that, had it been a Friends episode, would have been called “The One with all the Shakespeare”. First came Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick – another disappointment because although Derek Jacobi was hilarious it was weird casting and Lily James and Richard Madden (however gorgeous they are) totally lacked the passion necessary for a believable star-cross’d pair. Next was a gender-bending Henry V starring one of our greatest Shakespeareans Michelle Terry. You can read what I thought about that here. Then a dazzling Richard III at the Almeida starring Ralph Fiennes as a sexy yet utterly detestable Richard. He’s up there with my favourite Richards and the production was very clever indeed. My bard week concluded with The Shadow King at the Barbican, a visiting Aboriginal take on King Lear that I hated – I  just can’t imagine what audience it was made for. It felt like such a limited portrayal of Aboriginal culture and if I didn’t quite wince when the actors mentioned didgeridoos and boomerangs I certainly did when a kangaroo was name-checked. It was like Aboriginal bingo. No, thanks.

Two Faustuses, not alike in dignity
Confession: I got quite drunk in the interval of Jamie Lloyd’s West End version of Doctor Faustus starring [get your] Kit [off] Harington. It was that bad. Marlowe’s play is great but it’s a tricky one and, yes, it does get a bit dull in the middle. But, as that production proved, the solution is not to totally rewrite it, casting Faustus as a kind of David Blaine figure hooked on fame. I loved Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles but really did not love the gratuitous rape. Come on, guys, there are better ways to sex up early modern drama than that. Meanwhile, at the RSC, Maria Aberg’s production was pretty standard Stratford fare but won me over with its aesthetic and the opening moments in which the two leads Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan lit matches standing face to face on the stage. Whoever’s burnt for the longest time was Mephistopheles. It was a moment of truly powerful theatre.

The rest
I’ve also seen three shows at the National (a disappointing Threepenny Opera, a well-told and feminist-bent Deep Blue Sea and Sunset at the Villa Thalia, which was not as bad as the critics said). The deeply original Unreachable at the Royal Court made me remember that theatre can be not just funny but side-achingly hilarious, and I also watched some academic theatre including a traditional Japanese take on Ophelia from Hamlet and a translation of a Polish play that used Hamlet as a lens through which to explore religion and nationality after WW2.

And there you have it! It’s been quite a month. Here’s to me jotting more thoughts down more frequently in future…

Katie Mitchell broke my heart (again)

The culture: ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ by Katie Mitchell, Chloe Lamford, and Alice Birch, Royal Court Theatre

The cheap seats: £16 central Balcony seat

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.

And he danced to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘ because words failed him (like Shakespeare failed Ophelia [and also did you know that Joy Division is named not after joy but after something really morbid from the Holocaust?]).

Google image search ‘Ophelia’ and your screen will be flooded with Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite beauties, all floating on water, surrounded by flowers, mouth open, at peace (though there’s a dark tale behind that painting, too). This is the Ophelia who has been submerged in our collective consciousness for so long, the Ophelia who floats into our mind’s eye when Gertrude announces her tragic death. This is not the Ophelia of ‘Ophelias Zimmer’, a new play by Alice Birch designed by Chloe Lamford and directed by Katie Mitchell. Their Ophelia (Jenny Konig) doesn’t die in flowery poetry, her skirts billowing around her, nor does she die in oils on canvas. Her death isn’t beautiful. Drowning isn’t beautiful. How horrible that we’ve always assumed it was.

Written in gorgeous, grotesque gut-punches of German, ‘Ophelias Zimmer’ is framed by the five stages of drowning:

  1. Surprise.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding.
  3. Unconsciousness.
  4. Hypoxic Convulsions.
  5. Clinical Death.

I experienced at least two of these things. I left shaking. I will never watch ‘Hamlet’ the same way again. The next morning I woke up still more heartbroken after a dream of blood spatters and a lone shoe floating around Ophelia’s flooded room.

Victims rarely make any sounds. They are struggling just to breathe.

Her quiet existence is interrupted by her maid bringing flowers and her father calling “Ophelia!” and tea breaks and birdsong and flowers and calling and birds and cassette tapes and flowers and tea and calling and tapes and she leaves the room, she returns. She leaves, she returns.

And so on (and on, and on, and this is when people other than Ophelia started to leave).

She leaves. She returns. She sleeps. And flowers and “Ophelia!” and flowers, for dead things, and footsteps and tapes from Hamlet which she plays over and over, cutting him off mid “To be” and rewinding to her favourite parts instead. He declares his love for her, his plans for their life away from the rotten state, his dreams of her cunt. She stops the tape. She rewinds. His dreams of her cunt. He calls her a cocktease. He shouts “Fick dich” ad infinitum. She stops the tape. Rewinds. Fick dich Fick dich Fick dichFick dichfick dichfickdichfickdich.

The voice of her mother demands that she makes herself small. A sparrow. Little O. A pet name, a gasp, la petite mort avant la vraie mort, a full stop.

O.

But that O never comes. Hamlet is obsessed with the potential of Ophelia, loving her passionately from a distance and violently up close, but their strange affair is really little more than the frustrated fumblings of two separate, and separately tortured, souls. There can be no climax until Clinical Death. Before that there can be no ecstasy, only

  1. Surprise.
  2. Involuntary Breath Holding.
  3. Unconsciousness.
  4. Hypoxic Convulsions.

The rest is silence. Except I can’t be silent because I’m gasping for air and my teeth are knocking together and

O.

Such stuff as dreams are made on

  • I read Sonnet 40 to a group of strangers in exchange for a shot of something alcoholic from a handsome bartender in doublet and hose.
  • A spirit stared into my eyes and smeared glittery sand all over my face.
  • I watched Shakespeare sleep for a bit.
  • Queen Elizabeth I lip-synced Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’.

These weird and wonderful encounters are not extracts from my dreams (promise), but moments from Sedos Theatre’s ‘Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On’ by Sarah Heenan, a dazzling immersive journey through Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

On the eve of the Bard’s birth/death day I found myself in a disused office block in London’s docklands that, from the outside at least, looked like the last place you would find exciting Shakespeare. On the inside, though, it was a whole other story. The space had been transformed into an island full of noises, a maze of rooms filled with sand, the timber of a ship wreck, leaves of paper and ivy, origami boats, and Trinculo’s wine bottles.

I can’t really do it justice in words. It was a beautiful piece of rough magic.

 

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

X, rated

The culture: ‘X’ by Alistair McDowall, Royal Court

The cheap seats: a last minute freebee from a friend

At the post-show that followed the performance of ‘X’ I saw, Alistair McDowall (geeky, anxious, hilarious) said that he aimed for the back of the brain, writing for the subconscious, with his new play ‘X’.

And that’s exactly where it hit me. Or rather, where it crept up on me from. McDowall scatters linguistic tics and rhythms and repetition into his script like seeds which sprout up when you least expect them, take root and then return like Triffids in the second half.

The sci-fi genre put me off booking, originally, but I’m so glad I got to see this exciting piece of theatre. It might be set on a lonely research station on Pluto but ‘X’ is as much about time as it is about space. The team lose contact with Earth before the shuttle that was to take them back can reach. When the rescue ship still hasn’t arrived days/weeks/months later, they begin to feel nervous. As they lose hope and start to lose their minds, Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) realises there’s something wrong with the clock.

Linear time and linear narratives are shattered and the scenes between black-outs get weirder and weirder. The team start to see things outside, in space, and Gilda (Jessica Raine) is hallucinating – or is she?

There’s a line in ‘Hamlet’ – “the time is out of joint” – that sprang to mind as I watched the unravelling of life and logic in ‘X’. With its clever, crooked set, snappy direction, and excellent cast ‘X’ is provocative and challenging – it had me gripped (and a bit terrified), even when the dialogue broke down into xs
x

x

 

x
X

 

 

xo

xo

:
.

Hansberry vs. Horrocks

The culture: ‘Les Blancs’ by Lorraine Hansberry, National Theatre and ‘If You Kiss Me Kiss Me’ by Jane Horrocks and Aletta Collins, Young Vic

The cheap seats: £15 Travelex National Theatre ticket (front row, side view), £10 Young Vic Under 25 ticket

The best thing about London’s theatre scene is that you can see wildly differing things within a mile of each other. The worst thing is that within 0.6 miles you can see great theatre and not so great theatre. Because the quest for cheap seats involves booking before reviews come out – and sometimes before a show is anything more than a blurb on a booking page – sometimes I end up with tickets for not so great theatre. This week, I saw both kinds.

And so, after discovering a booking in my diary that I couldn’t even remember making, I found myself at the Young Vic watching If You Kiss Me Kiss Me. It’s basically Jane Horrocks singing her way through her favourite new wave songs while a theatre audience looks on, a bit awkwardly toe-tapping (and not the hits, really, either – perhaps Horrocks is trying to prove her eclectic taste, or perhaps the rights to ‘Tainted Love’ were too expensive). The Smiths, Joy Division, The Human League, The Buzzcocks, Soft Cell, they’re all here, beautifully sung and beautifully lit by Andreas Fuchs, with talented contemporary dancers throwing shapes against Bunny Christie’s seriously impressive set. There’s a giant plug socket, a fridge, lots of strip lighting. It’s all very ~conceptual~ and I wanted to like it, I really did. In fact, it reminded me of the recent ‘Macbeth’ at the Young Vic, which I also really wanted to like.

Horrocks is pretty good. The zombie-like dancers in sports gear and suits are really, really sexy. There’s even some cunnilingus choreography that had most of the front row looking anywhere but the stage. It’s pretty out there, but it just doesn’t come together (ahem) into a meaningful whole. There’s a vague, pessimistic theme of the brutality and pointlessness of love which would usually be my thing, but there’s no narrative to hang it on so it flounders. It feels a bit voyeuristic, too, and not just because of the gyrating bodies. There’s a real gig vibe but we’re at the theatre with our hands in our laps, not sure when to clap, instead of sweating and grinding too. There are some beautiful moments, though, especially when a heartbroken Horrocks sits on the giant plug and sings The Smiths’ ‘I Know It’s Over’ and I almost cried because that song hits too close to home, especially during the stresses of essay Hell month.

It would be wrong to call If You Kiss Me Kiss Me a vanity project because there are the seeds of something interesting here. Is Jane Horrocks telling us something (important) about being a woman trying to love past the age of 50? Maybe. The problem is, it’s not clear. It’s all a bit ‘Mum-does-the-school-run-in-a-leather-jacket-with-the-hits-from-her-youth-on-and-then-struts-to-the-school-gate’ (tragic) when it could have been ‘Yes-we-still-want-to-be-wanted-and-look-we’re-still-sexy’ (powerful). Maybe it just went over my (young) head. There’s some great clothes, though. The show got me coveting the copper bomber jacket that Horrocks really rocks, and Fabienne Débarre’s wardrobe/haircut/keyboard skills. And if nothing else it’s reignited my love/loathe relationship with The Smiths. *cue feelings*

 

What really got under my skin this week was Yaël Farber’s production of  Les Blancs by playwright and civil rights activist Lorraine Hansberry at the National. Set in an unnamed African country at the brink of revolution, it’s a complex drama about national ties and dislocated belonging. As “the terror” prepare for war and the colonial settlers prepare to flee, Tshembe returns from England for his father’s funeral and finds himself in a land he barely recognises. Les Blancs is incredibly rich and constantly shifting, with delicate characterisation brought out by a really superb ensemble. It’s powerful from the pungent incense that hits you as you walk in to the shocking conclusion that leaves your mind spinning as you walk out. The production is so brilliantly put together that the revolution feels dangerously real. Despite the clever speeches, it’s the sensual elements that I still can’t shake from my mind – that smell, the smoke, the singing matriarchs, the gorgeous, filmic lighting. Another real highlight is Sheila Atim, who I last saw up at the RSC, whose performance captivates without her saying a word. As The Woman she silently haunts the shattering world of Les Blancs, an everywoman/Mother Africa figure who is both powerful and vulnerable and moves like nothing I’ve seen before. I was breathless by the time they set the old world aflame in search of new hope. Staggering stuff.